The Spectator

We are not at war

We are not at war

Text settings

As day broke on 11 May 1941, Londoners could survey the devastation wrought by 100,000 incendiary bombs. Whole streets had been razed. More than 1,400 Londoners had been killed; many thousands more were lying terribly injured beneath the rubble.

The difference between this and the killing of 200 railway passengers in Madrid three weeks ago is more than one of scale; the difference between the Luftwaffe officers who masterminded the Blitz and the suspected al-Qa’eda bombers arrested in London, Crawley and Luton this week is more than one of accents and costumes. The Blitz was war. The activities of al-Qa’eda terrorists over the past few years are straightforward murder. For anyone lying bleeding in Madrid, the difference may seem academic. But for Western leaders contemplating a strategy to defend our cities against the terrorists, the distinction is crucial.

Schools, buses and telephones, as we have argued in these pages over the years, all tend to work better when they are removed from the hands of the state. War, however, is the one thing that by definition cannot be privatised. To conduct a war it is necessary for your opponents to recognise you as a political entity: if not a state then at least a tribe or a dispossessed people. The loose network of al-Qa’eda operatives in grubby west London bedsits possesses no such identity. Their activities may reasonably be called a campaign, an uprising, an outrage or any of about 50 other suggestions in Roget’s Thesaurus. But to say that they amount to a war is to argue that al-Qa’eda has a chance of defeating Western regimes. This is ridiculous: Osama bin Laden is no more likely to march triumphantly down the Mall than is a little green man from Mars. Al-Qae’da has means but no end — at least not in this world. Its ‘war’ cry is not ‘lebensraum’ or ‘freedom’, but the defeatist ‘you love life and we love death’.

That al-Qa’eda’s murderous campaign should be awarded a dignity it does not deserve is not the fault of its sympathisers. It was the American President who opted to call his response to the attacks of 9/11 a ‘war against terror’. The philosophically minded have already made the point that it is hard to go to war against an abstract noun, unless one has in mind the sort of linguistic battle waged by Lynne Truss. But there is a more serious reason why George W. Bush’s declaration of war was ill conceived. It is not possible for the West to achieve an outright defeat of a terrorist organisation. With or without bin Laden’s head, and no matter how many swarthy men are caught with Semtex on their hands, there will always be one more evil figure beavering away over bundles of fuse wire in a London bedsit. Terrorism is a threat which cannot be defeated, only managed.

To say that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance comes across today as a dreadful old cliché, but it began as a remarkably perceptive observation by John Philpot Curran upon his investiture in 1790 as Lord Mayor of another city that has bred more than its fair share of terrorists: Dublin. More than two centuries later, the rewards of eternal vigilance are obvious. We still have our liberty; in many ways we have more of it now than we had then. Save for the barriers which now stand across that former public thoroughfare, Downing Street, there are few ways in which the freedom of British citizens can be said to have been suppressed by the activities of Irish terrorists.

Yet the language employed in the fight against al-Qa’eda makes us wonder whether the authorities still possess the presumption in favour of liberty which they did when defending London against the IRA at the height of that organisation’s bombing campaign in the 1970s. We salute the efforts of intelligence staff and police officers which led to the arrest of eight terrorist suspects this week. Yet already there are suggestions that ammonium nitrate — the fertiliser seized in the raids and which is capable of being used as an explosive — might be banned or controlled. Farmers forbidden to grow GM crops in response to public paranoia may find themselves unable to grow economic quantities of conventional crops as well.

We can discount conspiracy theorists who suggest that this week’s arrests were staged by the Home Office to deflect attention from the embarrassment over immigration policy. But what of the deployment of armoured personnel carriers — useless in a confined space — to Heathrow on the eve of the debate on the Iraq war in February 2003? If the aim was to provoke fear in order to swing public opinion behind the war, it was a very grave wrong. The invasion of Iraq was a war; we supported it; it was won and Iraq is a better country for it. The defence of London against al-Qa’eda terrorists is something different. It requires intelligence, skilled policing and common sense on the part of the public. It does not require the armoury or the emergency restrictions on freedom associated with war. In order to protect our liberty it is necessary for citizens to maintain vigilance on our leaders as well as on the terrorists.